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February 2016

By Sandra R. Sabo

Learn More About Offline Reading

For better course and graduation completion rates, institutions now offer students a variety of affordable and innovative textbook options.

During orientation sessions for new students at Tennessee State University (TSU), Alisa Mosley always recommends that parents visit the campus bookstore. Doing so somewhat prepares them for the inevitable calls from students asking for another $1,000—or more—to purchase the semester’s required textbooks. 

“About 97 percent of our students receive some type of financial aid, and many come from single-parent homes, with average annual income of $37,000,” notes Mosley, associate vice president of academic affairs for TSU in Nashville. “Financial aid barely covers everything else, so how are families supposed to pay for books?”  

Her question is echoed by administrators at community colleges, private institutions, and public universities around the country, who have watched textbook prices skyrocket in recent years. Drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau, the American Enterprise Institute has determined that the cost of college textbooks rose 945 percent from 1978 through 2014. That whopping increase far outpaced the rising costs of medical care (up 604 percent) and the Consumer Price Index (up 262 percent) during the same period. 

In response, many students have turned to renting rather than buying their textbooks. In its 2015 College CFO Survey on Textbook Delivery and Bookstore Services, Akademos reports that sales of rental books grew more than 60 percent over the preceding two years. Some students, especially those with financial aid, also delay their textbook rentals or purchases as long as possible, observes Robert Blaine, dean of undergraduate studies and cyberlearning, Jackson State University (JSU), Jackson, Miss. 

“Our data showed that students were basically going without their course materials for the first half of class. They were waiting for their federal financial aid checks, which don’t come until four to six weeks into the semester,” says Blaine, adding that about 90 percent of JSU’s students receive financial aid. “We’d often see low student performance in the first half of the semester. Then, after midterms, students would have their books and work like crazy, trying to learn a full semester’s worth of material in half the time.”  

Still others never acquire the required texts. “Needing to save money, students may view the textbook as optional and opt out of purchasing it—a choice that is not the best for their educational outcome,” observes Bill Muse, vice president of administration and finance at Schreiner University, Kerrville, Texas. In fact, respondents to the Akademos survey of CFOs report that nearly 30 percent of students opt not to purchase a required textbook for at least one class.  

The same survey found a 24 percent increase during the last two years in the importance that CFOs place on providing access to high-quality, low-cost textbooks and ensuring that students have those materials by the time their classes start. With that two-pronged goal in mind, here’s how several institutions are addressing textbook affordability and availability.

The Online Option

Recognizing that its students have often paid more for textbooks than tuition and fees, Lansing Community College (LCC) in Michigan unveiled an online bookstore in January 2015. LCC has never had a physical bookstore, so its approximately 15,000 students typically purchased their materials from local or online booksellers.  

“Our goal is to have textbooks in the hands of students when classes start, which wasn’t always happening,” says Don Wilske, LCC’s chief financial officer. “For financial aid students, the college was issuing an advance for a specific dollar amount so they, in theory, could use that money to purchase their textbooks. But we had no control over how they spent it.”

Thanks to systems integration, students can now use their expected financial aid to purchase textbooks through the LCC online bookstore, which is operated by MBS Direct. They can choose from multiple options—new, used, rental, or digital, depending upon availability—and also see prices for materials sold by authorized third parties, rather than spending time on extensive online searches. Buybacks at semester’s end are handled right on campus, further contributing to student convenience.

But the biggest benefit to students who patronize the bookstore is saving money. “The college itself is not getting any financial gain from the online bookstore—we’re doing it strictly as a service to our students,” Wilske says. “Rather than receiving any commission on the books sold, we’d rather have that amount taken off the price our students pay.” 

Concierge Service 

Not long after Muse arrived at Schreiner University four years ago, he had a vision: A few days before classes started, students would simply head to the bookstore and pick up a bag containing all the textbooks they needed for their specific courses. There would be no additional outlay of cash. No online searching. No worries about how much the books cost or whether they’d arrive in time. 

That vision came to fruition in fall 2014 when the university unveiled The Schreiner Experience, which bundles all textbooks and student learning opportunities—including academic internships, undergraduate research, and campus events—into one fee. “We are a small campus and pride ourselves on offering a personalized education and relationship with students. This textbook program is like a concierge service,” explains Muse. 

He worked closely with Schreiner’s provost, Charlie McCormick, to develop and refine the program. They had already created a bookstore advisory board comprising students, faculty, and staff. Then, Muse says, “The provost and I got in front of as many students and faculty possible, in every configuration possible—focus groups, town hall meetings, governance meetings—to field questions.” 

At the same time, they interviewed vendors and shared enrollment data and textbook acquisition history for the previous three years. Schreiner eventually contracted with Rafter to provide its 1,000 undergraduates with all their print and digital textbooks for the academic year, at a flat per-student rate. Most textbooks are new; others are lightly used.

“From the students’ perspective, it’s analogous to having library books—you check them out at the beginning of the semester and return them at the end. If they don’t return the books or want to purchase them, the students are billed at half the list price,” Muse notes. As students drop and add classes, Schreiner’s enrollment software communicates with Rafter’s system, and the new texts are sent to the campus bookstore for pickup. 

For the program to work, Schreiner must complete its textbook adoptions far enough in advance for Rafter to locate, acquire, and ship all the books. The vendor also assists bookstore staff with preparing the bundles of textbooks.      

The Schreiner Experience fee, which is listed separately on students’ billing statements, combines the costs of supplying the textbooks—including administering the bookstore—and offering enhanced student learning opportunities. Originally, Muse had hoped to omit the bookstore allocation after two or three years and increase the portion given to the academic programs. But, after only one year, Schreiner had already recovered the bookstore’s administrative costs through sales of other merchandise.

Muse notes, “Our bookstore manager is now able to focus more on sales of other merchandise and develop other revenue streams, because she isn’t constantly working on the logistics of getting books in and out.” The bundled textbook model has enabled Schreiner to hire more work/study students, increase internships and service learning opportunities, and subsidize travel costs for students studying abroad. These experiential learning enhancements, combined with total access to required course materials, have already contributed to measurable improvements in student success. 

Digital Texts Plus Devices

With first-generation college students representing about half of Keystone College’s enrollment, President David Coppola worried that mounting textbook costs were hampering students’ ability to succeed at the La Plume, Pa., campus. Town hall meetings with faculty and students confirmed his fears: Many students waited until classes started before deciding which books they really needed to buy.

Keystone administrators worked with Follett, the college’s bookstore operator, to develop a different model. Meetings with students and faculty revealed a clear preference for digital textbooks—with no transition time from print. The sticking point, however, was equipment availability. Not all students had a computer or tablet on which to read those digital textbooks. 

“For anytime, anywhere learning to occur, we realized that we had to provide a device on which they [students] could access their course materials,” says Coppola. So, through Follett’s IncludED Text program, each of Keystone’s 1,600 students now receives an iPad, branded with the college logo, and access to all the digital textbooks that he or she needs for that semester’s courses. Depending on the student’s needs, other materials may be included, such as paints for art courses or goggles for science courses.

“We provide the iPad and anything that’s a required course material for the same cost, raising tuition to compensate for all the materials and the infrastructure needed to support full access,” Coppola explains. “The net effect is that students, at a minimum, are saving several hundred dollars per semester and have all their resources one week before classes start.” 

The digital textbooks reside on Follett’s Brytewave platform, from which students can use any device to download, print, underline, and highlight content. Access to the textbooks extends several weeks past the course’s end, and the system automatically switches out the required texts as students add or drop courses. 

Keystone provides the iPads to all students taking at least 12 credits per semester. “We have a capital lease with Apple for two years, at the end of which the devices are refreshed, and then returned to the students for another two years. As a graduation present, students keep the iPad when they finish their degrees,” Coppola says. 

Students sign a contract agreeing to return the iPad if they do not continue attending Keystone. To further deter theft, each iPad is equipped with a device that enables Keystone to deactivate and locate it. The campus store not only provides technical support, but also switches out iPads that malfunction or break—for no additional fee. 

Keystone unveiled its new textbook model last fall. When the college evaluates the program later this spring, Coppola anticipates positive results. “I’m counting on seeing increases in student retention and in satisfaction,” he says. “The whole point of college is academic engagement, and everywhere I go, I see students doing research and sharing information with each other using their iPads.” 

Supplying nearly every student with the same device has also produced the unintended benefit of improving campus communications. Coppola notes, “Because everyone has the same configuration, we can easily send an e-mail blast about any technical glitches. And, should we have an emergency on campus, we have an easy way to get a message out immediately.” 

All Bundled Up 

Tennessee State University also utilizes Follett’s Brytewave platform to provide a bundle of digital textbooks to some of its 7,000 undergraduates. Those students pay a flat rate of $365 per semester, which is included in their tuition and fees, to access the textbooks.    

“We designated that all 20 of our general education courses use textbooks in a digital format—and we decided the cost could be no more than $65 per book,” says Alisa Mosley. “A few titles cost more than that, but other titles are much less, so the digital bundle averages out to a good deal.

“The hook for a publisher is our volume,” she continues, “because we guarantee a freshman class with 1,500 or 1,600 students who will all get the book.” Mosley estimates that students taking 12 to 16 credit hours used to pay $800 per semester for textbooks; they now spend less than half of that. Plus, now that all students have the textbook, the engagement levels in general education classes and study groups have increased.

The digital books reside on TSU’s eLearn system, from which students can download their titles to computers and tablets. The content remains accessible for six months. 

“Students who don’t like e-books have the option of getting a softcover, print-on-demand version for an additional $15,” Mosley adds. “For the same cost as the digital version, we’ll also provide a print version to those with ADA considerations.”  

TSU encountered a few glitches when introducing its digital Book Bundle initiative in fall 2014, primarily with books that needed tweaking to be fully compatible with Brytewave. Early on, administrators also identified the need to better support first-generation and nontraditional students who didn’t have a high comfort level with the technology. “Our educational technology staff produced FAQs and video tutorials on how to navigate a digital textbook, posting them in the students’ portal for easy access,” says Mosley. 

With the digital textbook program now in its second year for general education courses, students are definitely sold on the bundling concept. Mosley has already heard from juniors who want something similarly affordable for their upper-level classes. 

No Books Needed

Since introducing textbook rentals five years ago, Tidewater Community College (TCC), located in South Hampton Roads, Va., has seen rentals skyrocket to the point where they now represent 60 percent of the campus bookstore’s inventory. Digital textbooks, introduced around the same time, have not proved popular; only about 1 percent of students currently choose them.

But TCC’s faculty and administrators are betting that the use of digital content will change dramatically. Three years ago, to hold down educational costs for students, they ventured into the world of open educational resources (OER)—teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license permitting free use and repurposing by others.  

“We started small, with a two-year pilot, and let the effort evolve around faculty interests,” explains Daniel DeMarte, TCC’s vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer. “Essentially, we wanted to know if it was possible to offer a full degree without textbooks, just using OER.” Tidewater named its effort the Z-Degree and first offered it in business administration.

“It was the easy place to start. Because business administration is the second highest producer of graduates at Tidewater, there was a wealth of OER available, and the faculty champion was in that department,” says DeMarte. In building its new Z-courses, Tidewater drew on the expertise of Lumen Learning, a company that curates the vast amount of academic material in the public domain. 

Lumen helped faculty members find a specific OER to support every desired course outcome. The material was then posted on Tidewater’s BlackBoard system, where it remains accessible to students while they are registered for a course. Students can access the free material through any type of device, and faculty can revise the material as the course progresses, making adjustments as they see how students interact with the content.   

Tidewater’s pilot program, which concluded in spring 2015, ran for five semesters. In that time, 2,500 students successfully completed at least one Z-course. DeMarte estimates that not having to buy or rent the textbooks for each of those courses has saved each student about $100 per book—or $3,800 to purchase all books needed to complete the entire program.  

When launching its Z-Degree initiative, TCC set two standards: The open educational resources content had to be equal in quality or better than the textbooks available, and the metrics needed to be at least on a par with courses not using OER. The effort has succeeded on both fronts.  

DeMarte reports, “The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive; 95 percent or more have been satisfied with the experience, the content, and the course design.” In addition, he says, “Our data show that more students finish a Z-course than their non-Z counterparts. That means they’re staying with us, and we’re not refunding their tuition.” 

Thirteen faculty members participated in the OER pilot, and 60 others have since joined their ranks. This year, Tidewater will add additional Z-degrees in general studies, social sciences, and criminal justice. 

Free for All 

Rapidly rising textbook costs prompted faculty members at Rice University in Houston to take matters into their own hands. Under the leadership of Richard G. Baraniuk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and a proponent of open access educational materials, the university formed a separate nonprofit entity in 2011 to publish original, digital textbooks.

“Our goal was to follow the same best practices used in the publishing industry—using professional authors who are faculty members from around the country, having multiple layers of peer review and classroom testing, and ensuring that the books match the scope and sequence of the courses,” says Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax. More than 100 people contribute to the dev-elopment of each book. They all assign the copyright to OpenStax, which then makes the content publicly available under an open-source license, such as Creative Commons. 

Each OpenStax book includes extra features, such as embedded videos, simulations, and practice problems. Students can access the free digital content in a variety of ways; Web access is the most popular, followed by PDF downloads, and mobile access. They can also purchase a printed version, which OpenStax may sell for $40 to $50 compared to a commercially published counterpart that might command $300. 

In 2015, 260,000 students used OpenStax textbooks at more than 1,000 different educational institutions, reports Baraniuk, with the number of institutional adoptions rapidly growing. As an example, he says, “The psychology department at the University of Georgia recently adopted our psychology textbook, and nearly 2,000 students are using it. They’re saving a total of almost $200,000 in one academic year.”     

Rice University, which uses biology and sociology textbooks developed by OpenStax, provides a physical location and support services. The costs of developing the textbooks are underwritten by several philanthropic foundations committed to improving access to higher education. OpenStax is also building financial support from a network of for-profit and nonprofit partners such as tutoring companies that provide value-added services.

A Cyberlearning Strategy

Jackson State University developed its first digital textbook in 2010 and 50 more followed in the ensuing four years, all written by faculty members. Those texts are just one manifestation of JSU’s holistic plan to reshape its facilities and instructional techniques to support 21st century learning.

The goal, says Robert Blaine, is to stimulate creativity and innovation while building students’ foundational, critical thinking, and analytical skills. “Those learning outcomes are germane to every course in the general education core—the first two years of the undergraduate experience,” he explains. “With those as a base, we built a huge matrix that looks at curriculum and skill set development, and then used it to develop both problem- and project-based content for the digital books.” 

The books, known collectively as the “digital core,” cost $9.99 each—a savings of approximately 90 percent compared to the average print textbook. Distributed through iTunesU, the books remain in the cloud as long as students have an account, giving them ongoing access to content even as it is revised and updated over the years.

All incoming freshmen also receive an iPad on which to download their digital course materials, communicate with other students, and work on group projects such as videos. Students pay only a one-time fee of $50 to cover insurance on the iPads. JSU purchases the tablets through a separate entity called The Mississippi e-Center, then gives students a two-year scholarship to use them.

“Over those two years, we depreciate the value of the device down to zero. Then, if the student has remained enrolled for four consecutive semesters, the device rolls off the inventory of the e-Center and becomes the student’s property,” says Blaine. “That approach puts the technology in the student’s hands and also serves as an incentive for students to matriculate.”   

Since instituting the digital core and iPad program, Jackson State has seen its retention rates rise from 74 percent to 78 percent, and experienced a 4 percent annual growth in students which has boosted its total enrollment to 9,800. “That growth has given us funds to reinvest in the learning environment, such as redesigning a section of our library to support project-based learning,” says Blaine. “If we’re going to prepare our students for the world of today and tomorrow, then we need to educate them with the tools of today and tomorrow.”

SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minn., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

Lansing Community College students can choose from multiple options—new, used, rental, or digital, depending upon availability—and see prices for materials sold by authorized third parties.

“We wanted to know if it was possible to offer a full degree without textbooks, just using open educational resources.”

—Daniel DeMarte, Tidewater Community College